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Cable television new location for Christmas specials

Photo courtesy of Nickolodean

Christmas is a time for television. Sitcoms are dressed with wreaths and trees; dramas, for the space of an episode, get extra-poignant, perhaps by the addition of a homeless person. In animated specials, collected through generations, something bad almost happens to Christmas itself: Santa is sick; he is tied up in a closet; his team lacks a reindeer. A sad little Christmas tree is plumped with love. Frosty hearts melt like marshmallows in the hot chocolate milk of human kindness.

As the broadcast majors have grown content mostly to trim ongoing series with seasonal signifiers and bring a few classics down from the attic, the lion’s share of new holiday show-making has moved to basic cable, where networks such as Nickelodeon service children the live-long day and Lifetime and the Hallmark Channel keep faith with the TV movie, in a low-budget, reduced-expectations sort of way. Lifetime likes a tabloid thrill, but nothing you see on Hallmark will make you any more anxious than the opening of a Christmas card; predictability, one would say, is part of the deal, and appeal.

In Lifetime’s “Sundays at Tiffany’s” (Monday), Alyssa Milano must choose between straw man Ivan Sergei, a self-admiring actor, and the magically embodied adult self of her childhood imaginary friend (Eric Winter). An odd mix of Peter Pan, Pinocchio and “The Bishop’s Wife,” it suggests that what a woman really wants is a boy-man with practical skills who can read her mind, because he’s been in it.

Much the same business animates ABC Family’s “Christmas Cupid” (Dec. 12), which has been hung on the bones of “A Christmas Carol.” It stars Christina Milian as a self-centered workaholic publicist who is haunted by the spirits of old boyfriends and the ghost of a Lindsay Lohan-like client (Ashley Benson), as perpetually glued to the martini whose olive choked her as Jacob Marley was to the chains he forged in life. Will Milian “die alone” in her turn? It’s a fear that fuels many basic-cable films.

But I never cared whether she would or not.

Similar architecture (romantic triangle, helpful shades, supernatural Christmas deadline) underpins Hallmark’s “Three Wise Women” (Dec. 14), a Dublin-set “Carol” variation in which the guiding spirits are the protagonist’s younger and older selves (Lauren Coe, Amy Huberman and Fionnula Flanagan, in ascending chronological order). There is also Hugh O’Connor as one of those angels-on-probation types. The film takes good advantage of the farcical possibilities suggested by the premise, Coe is lively and the text benefits greatly from being spoken in an Irish brogue.

“Farewell Mr. Kringle” (Hallmark, Saturday) is a sort of small-town “Miracle on 34th Street” in which the Santa figure (William Morgan Sheppard), in whose honor his fellow citizens have renamed their city Mistletoe, knows that he isn’t actually Kris Kringle and ultimately describes his own pathology. (It’s common for these films to spell out their themes and motives, so as to leave no viewer behind.) Christine Taylor is the journalist who learns to love again.

Troublesome men are also the issue in “On Strike for Christmas” (Lifetime Movie Network, Sunday), with Daphne Zuniga as an underappreciated mom driven to a holiday work-stoppage. It deflates toward its almost arbitrary end, but Zuniga remains a real person throughout. In “The Battle of the Bulbs” (Hallmark, Dec. 18), Daniel Stern and Matt Frewer play new neighbors and old rivals whose ongoing enmity takes the shape of competing Christmas displays. It’s nice to see them, but there is nothing new, and the picture drags them down to its level.

That the holidays are actually fun, and funny, and that television can be smart and original is left to the makers of kids’ shows to demonstrate. In Nickelodeon’s sprightly “The Penguins of Madagascar: The All-Nighter Before Christmas” (Dec. 12), the cartoon inhabitants of the Central Park Zoo cause mayhem as they try to organize a Christmas party.

The story-to-song ratio is much higher in “Big Time Christmas” (Nickelodeon, Saturday) an hourlong expansion of “Big Time Rush,” Scott Fellows’ exuberant boy-band-as-Monkees-as-Looney-Tunes Nickelodeon series, that finds its stars trying to get home to Minnesota. Guests include Miranda Cosgrove, from “iCarly,” and the bizarrely wholesome Snoop Dogg, who helps the boys cut a new version of “The 12 Days of Christmas.” Tragedy briefly strikes when they are told, “Justin Bieber just released ‘50 Days of Christmas’ with 50 Cent. It’s over eight hours long, and it’s a masterpiece.”

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